You may have wondered if there are other things you can do on top of riding your bike that will improve your energy, endurance, and recovery time while also preventing unwanted cramping, muscle soreness, and post ride fatigue. For many of my athletic female patients, there are a few key hormonal areas to optimize that can make a huge difference. Also, there are some specific nutrients, such as iron, protein, and magnesium, that are very important to ensure you are getting in adequate levels for your exercise intensity.
Hormones play a significant role in the recovery of our muscles and ability to perform physically. There are three “hormone pillars” – the ovaries, adrenals, and thyroid. These three hormone producing organs work very closely together (along with others) to control our response to stress, regulate our monthly menstruation (period), regulate our metabolism and much more. The function of these organs is crucial for muscle recovery and function, as well as optimal health.
The first hormone organ that plays a primary role in controlling and modulating our metabolism is the thyroid. Think of the thyroid like a car’s engine – it controls your body temperature, bowel movements (waste products), energy production (power), mood, and much more. Optimal thyroid function is required for rapid muscle recovery and energy. Generally, thyroid function is tested through a blood test where physicians look at your value for TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) and compare it to a well-established reference range. However, there is a growing amount of evidence showing this is only one piece to the puzzle and that it is important to also look at these other two thyroid hormones called Free T3 and Free T4.1 The role of Free T4 is essentially to tell the thyroid gland when there is enough hormone in the blood stream so that the thyroid can reduce or turn off production – this is called a negative feedback loop and is how many hormones in the body function and talk to each other.2
The adrenal glands sit like little hats on top of your kidneys and they are the primary producers of the stress hormone – cortisol. It is important that cortisol is regulated and modulated to allow your body to recover properly. You want your cortisol to increase during exercise but after working out it is important that cortisol comes down so that you can sleep, rest, and recover.
Finally, the ovaries are specific to female reproduction and they are responsible for the production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. We need these hormones for the regulation of our periods (menses) and they are important in muscle recovery and building. Estrogen and progesterone are also very important for bone health as they regulate bone building and bone breakdown. Here are some key steps to ensuring adequate hormone levels:
- Get your hormones tested to ensure they are at adequate levels. Ideally get your thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), Free T4 and T3, progesterone, cortisol and estrogen tested and have a qualified healthcare professional assess them for you to ensure they are in the optimal range.
- Eat an adequate amount of healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, and fish oil. Healthy fats are the building blocks for production of most hormones
- Be strategic with your training – ensure there is enough time between exercise or training periods to allow your hormones to recover and repair your body
- Do some weight bearing activity. Weight bearing activity is extremely important for females and is crucial in preventing bone loss. Weight bearing activity stimulates the specific cells in bone that helps keep them strong.
- Never underestimate the power of nutrition when it comes to maximizing your bike ride or your health.
Here are some of the key nutrients to be aware of and their health benefits:
- Magnesium – this is one of my most favourite nutrients that is highly beneficial for preventing muscle cramping during and after rides. Although there is not sufficient scientific evidence for its use in muscle cramping, clinically I have seen it work wonders. The best form for muscle relaxation is called magnesium glycinate. This type of magnesium is very absorbable and will help promote muscle relaxation at the muscle cell level. Generally, I recommend magnesium before bed as it also helps promote relaxation and sleep.
- Protein intake – very important for muscle building and recovery.3 When I assess my patient’s diets most of them are not getting enough protein daily. If your body is protein deficient, it will break down your muscles instead of building them. The standard RDA calculation for ensuring you are getting enough protein is: 0.8-1.8 grams of protein per Kg of body weight. Generally, this calculation is used for a sedentary person so it is important to add 10-15%, depending on how active you are. Good sources of protein include: eggs, nut butters, quinoa, seeds, whey isolate protein powders, chicken, fish, red meat.
- Iron – this nutrient is essential for most women and ,due to our monthly cycle, we can end up losing iron every month. Iron is commonly deficient in young active individuals.4 Iron levels highly impact muscle function because of its role in hemoglobin, which ensures oxygenation of all your muscles. Iron is tested through blood by looking at the storage form called ferritin. Ferritin is a measure of iron stores in your body and it is important that you are not deficient in iron stores. I commonly see this as a cause for fatigue during a ride and it can be a cause of post-ride fatigue. I generally do not recommend iron supplementation without sufficient testing as high iron levels are not good either.
Hormone health and optimal nutrient intake are key factors in helping you feel awesome during your rides, and are also very important for ensuring overall good health and well-being. I believe prevention is essential to staying healthy and that means more time to ride bikes! Please be reminded these are suggestions above and I always recommend you seek the help of a healthcare professional to best assess your personal needs and health concerns.
Robyn is a Naturopathic Physician who is passionate about mountain biking, road cycling, and working with the body’s basic mechanics. Her focus is restoring and maintaining healthy motion for individuals. When not in her office, you’ll find Robyn her turquoise Transition Smuggler with purple highlights.
1Melville, N. Medscape Article “Symptoms Persist Despite Normalized TSH with Levothyroxine.” 2016 (October 25th) retrieved from: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/870924
2UpToDate website information on Thyroid Physiology retrieved from: http://www.uptodate.com/contents/thyroid-hormone-synthesis-and-physiology
3American Dietetic Association et.al. “American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Nutrition and Athletic Performance.” Medicine and science in sports medicine. 2009; 41(3): 709-31. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19225360
4Parnell, JA et al. “Dietary Intakes and Supplement Use in Pre-adolescent and Adolescent Canadian Athletes.” Nutrients. 2016. Aug 26; 8(9). Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27571101